PHILIPPINES— President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said the government finds abhorrent the harassment of Filipino boats by Chinese coast guard ships in the Ayungin Shoal last week.
Speaking at a regional summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte said the incident “does not speak well” of China’s relations with the Philippines and the other members of the 10-nation bloc.
“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments,” the President said.
On November 16, three Chinese vessels blocked the path of two civilian boats ferrying supplies to Filipino troops stationed in the shoal.
The ships also fired water cannons at the Philippine boats, which were forced to turn back.
Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island Group, which is inside the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Duterte said territorial disputes involving the contested waterway cannot be resolved with violent altercations but only through peaceful negotiations and by recognizing the rule of law.
He referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and the 2016 The Hague ruling that rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea.
“Unclos and the 2016 Arbitral Award provide legal clarity, pointing us to a just and fair solution to our disputes. We must fully utilize these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity,” the President said.
He reminded China of its commitment to the crafting of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
The European Union (EU) also deplored the harassment of Philippine boats in Ayungin and reiterated its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that will endanger peace, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and the international rules-based order.
“This episode follows other unilateral actions by vessels of the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea over the past months,” Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a statement on Monday.
“We urge all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), including its dispute settlement mechanisms,” Massrali said.
The EU reiterated that the arbitration award rendered under Unclos on July 12, 2016, resolved that Second Thomas Shoal, the international name for Ayungin, “lies within” the Philippines EEZ and continental shelf.
Massrali said the EU supports the process led by the Asean in establishing a COC in the South China Sea.
The United States Embassy in Manila has also vowed its support for the Philippines and reaffirmed that an armed attack on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea would invoke US commitments under the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz and German Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel shared a tweet on November 20 where they said their countries “share serious concerns on [the] latest incidents caused by three Chinese vessels against two [Philippine civilian] supply boats in [the] South China Sea.”
Australian Ambassador Steven Robinson said in a separate tweet: “Australia has consistently expressed support for Unclos, the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award and an open and inclusive region.”
“We continue to work with and support our partners on maritime issues and are concerned with recent destabilizing incidents in the South China Sea,” Robinson said.
Japanese Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa tweeted that “Japan strongly opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.”
“Compliance with the 2016 Arbitral Award and the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law, Unclos, are vital for peace and prosperity in the region,” Koshikawa said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the aborted resupply mission for troops at the Ayungin Shoal resumed on Monday. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian asked that the supply boats have no escorts.
“The resupply ships left this morning [from] Oyster Bay in Palawan and will reach [BRP] Sierra Madre tomorrow morning,” Lorenzana told reporters on Monday.
The Sierra Madre is a ship that ran aground at Ayungin Shoal in 1999. It has since served as a station for Marine troops.
The resupply mission will be carried out by the same boats that were involved in the November 16 incident.
China’s foreign ministry has claimed that the two boats “trespassed” Chinese waters and its vessels only “performed official duties in accordance with law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order.”
Lorenzana pushed back on Sunday, saying that China should have not impeded the supply mission and that it was its ships that intruded into Philippine territory.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said he was hoping that the MDT would be revised to include a provision where it has to be enforced automatically.
Under the treaty, any action by the US needs approval from the US Congress.
“So, if there is confrontation and we decide to fight too, the MDT might not be enforced just yet,” Esperon said in a radio interview. “I just hope that the MDT would be automatic… but, we can work that out later on.”
An official from the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations sees the Ayungin incident as China’s way to test how the Philippines would react to such situations.
“There were no protests on the streets. No demonstrations at the Chinese Embassy. There were strongly worded diplomatic protests and the statements of President Rodrigo Duterte at the Asean meet,” retired Lt. General Edilberto Adan said on Monday.
“So what they did was they loosened the grip. But they will tighten it again. The mere act of allowing but under conditions (no PH Coast Guard escorts) shows that they are still assertive of the area. They are showing they are in control. That is why they will probably do it again (water cannon),” Adan added.
Because the Chinese used nonlethal water cannons in the incident, “the MDT cannot be implemented. It is short of an armed attack but it is not an armed attack,” he said.
Adan said the Philippines could in the future also resort to nonlethal means in responding to China’s aggressive acts.
“Japan did it. They were hosed by the Chinese Coast Guard and they fired back using water cannons as well. No shots were fired. That is what we should do, I think,” he said.
Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, who flew to Pag-asa Island on a private plane on Saturday, said they were challenged via radio by a Chinese coast guard ship and told to turn back.
With the presidential candidate were other Partido Reporma officials.
He said the radio challenge was made as they were approaching the airstrip in Pag-asa.
“This is my country and no foreign armed forces can tell me to stay out,” said Lacson.
“Being radio challenged by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel stationed more than three nautical miles off the coast of Pag-asa, I never considered backing out,” he said on Twitter on Sunday.
Lacson recalled that as they landed at Pag-asa Island, he received a text message, “Welcome to China,” which he said was unusual.
The copilots of the Pilatus PC-12 plane, John Donguines and Geo Villacasin, said they received warnings from the Chinese Navy on their way to Pag-asa.
Lacson and his party flew from the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan for a consultation with the local residents and soldiers in Pag-asa Island.
The Chinese Navy radioed Lacson’s plane: “You are approaching our military zone. Please stay away from the area and leave immediately. Your actions are unfriendly and dangerous. Your actions are dangerous.”
A subsequent message warned: “You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately in order to avoid misjudgment.”
The pilots responded with calm to defuse the tension, said Partido Reporma spokesperson Ashley Acedillo.
Lacson said on Monday he will pursue a “tough stance” against bullying in the West Philippine Sea if he wins the presidency.
He said that while the Philippines should maintain trade relations with countries like China, it cannot sacrifice its sovereignty and sovereign rights.
Lacson said the timing is right to revisit the Mutual Defense Treaty, after the US expressed willingness to enhance efforts for an international law-based maritime order including freedom of navigation.
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